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India in South Africa 2013-14

Zak's back without excess baggage

Discarded and unfit, Zaheer Khan sighted an unceremonious end to his career. Then he decided to do something about it

Nagraj Gollapudi

November 25, 2013

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Zaheer Khan training with Tim Exeter

The change is striking. If you have not seen Zaheer Khan for a while and spot him in person, or on television, you might mistake him for an army cadet. Like a fresher at a defence academy, he is lean, lithe and sports a crew cut. Not the Zaheer with fat around the hips, whom Michael Holding called unfit after a cursory glance from a distance on the first morning of India's Test series in England in 2011.

Hips don't lie. Today Zaheer's are slimmer and more flexible as he turns to deliver the ball. Although the run-up is the same, he is now capable of accelerating without breaking sweat. The biggest change in Zaheer, who has been selected for India's Test series in South Africa, is that he doesn't have to worry about breaking down.

Before his return against West Indies A in October, Zaheer had played no first-class cricket in 2013. He pulled a hamstring in a Ranji Trophy match against Gujarat in the last week of 2012. During the IPL, he achieved tournament-best figures of 4 for 17 in a victory against Chennai Super Kings, but he spent more time in the Royal Challengers Bangalore dugout than on the field.

After numerous hours trying to rehabilitate at the frugally equipped National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bangalore over the last couple of years, Zaheer began to get frustrated. His last Test for India had been against England in December 2012, and he desperately wanted to impose himself on batsmen again.


Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan at Tim Exeter's centre
Zaheer Khan and Yuvraj Singh at Tim Exeter's performance centre © Tim Exeter
Enlarge

Sometime in June this year, Ashish Kaushik, one of the trainers at the NCA, told Zaheer and Yuvraj Singh - who was also keen to get specialist attention on the fitness front - about Tim Exeter, an athletic and performance coach, who runs a centre in the small picturesque town of Brive-La-Gaillarde, between Bordeaux and Lyon in southern France. The place suited the pair's desire to train in an environment where they could remain anonymous.

This was the first time Exeter was working with cricketers. To him, though, the two were just athletes. "I could tell they were not as lean as they needed to be," Exeter says. "Having not worked with the guys before, I was not familiar about where they should be. But one of Zak's major goals was to get his body fat levels down and get stronger."

Originally from Scotland, Exeter, who describes himself as an athletic performance coach, moved to France five years ago along with his wife Helen and four children. He played rugby for Scotland at representative level, and once for the national team, before he broke his neck and moved on to coaching. He came to France with a couple of England rugby players - 2003 World Cup winners both - who were, like him, playing for Northampton at the time. Exeter had spent close to seven years with the club but decided to move because he was not happy with the inconsistencies in the coaching system.

"I specialise in improving performance and reducing injury risks," Exeter says. "Making athletes more robust so they don't pick up silly injuries, or help them come back from injuries better. The areas of specialty, particularly, are speed and agility, and movement efficiency. It is not about making them fast in a straight line. It is about being able to change in all directions. It is three-dimensional.

"If your movement is more efficient, you will use less energy, but you will also be more consistent, and that also allows you to generate more."

India might not have had a more skilled fast bowler, but niggles, recurring injures and inconsistent fitness habits were threatening to make Zaheer, who turned 35 this October, obsolete. He knew his chances in ODI cricket were slim, with the selectors set on the World Cup in 2015. The only way back was through Test cricket, which couldn't have been easy given its fitness demands. Her needed to make a decision about where he wanted to go.

****

The first thing Exeter worked out was a strict diet, and Zaheer bought into it without complaints. A combination of the right food and rigorous training became the routine during the six weeks he spent in France.

"Where a lot of people go wrong is, they eat too much bread and pasta and a whole lot of stuff like that," Exeter says. "But if you are not in an endurance sport like cycling or distance running, it is not good to have such food. There has been a fallacy that pasta is king, and you have got to smash carbohydrates down, but it can actually blow you up. So he reduced that a lot, and switched to more protein, like fish, and vegetables along with moderate amounts of fruit to help improve his body composition."

 
 
"Zak said that he is not the fastest bowler in the world. That is not his intention. What he wants to be able to do is bowl at a good pace, do it consistently, and do it all day" Tim Exeter, athletic and performance coach
 

The message was simple: if your intake of calories is more than what you expend, then you are going to put on weight. An advantage for Exeter was Zaheer knew his body well. "He is like any good professional athlete I have worked with," Exeter says. "I know what will work, but you always need the coach-athlete relationship to be working to tweak things. In that respect Zak is brilliant. He does know his body. He also knows what he wants. So we were able to develop some interesting stuff specific to him and it worked."

Other than the weight control, Exeter worked extensively on Zaheer's running technique, which increased his efficiency as a bowler and made him quicker on the field while spending less energy. "Zak said that he is not the fastest bowler in the world," Exeter says. "That is not his intention. What he wants to be able to do is bowl at a good pace, do it consistently, and do it all day. If he has bowled 120 balls a day, he wants to know that he can bowl the last one nearly as hard and fast as the first one."

According to Exeter, Zaheer has a highly demanding bowling action with a huge impact on his landing foot. "There is a massive force coming down on the leg he plants down before he delivers," he says. "He has got to have the ability to decelerate, which has mainly to do with his right leg, which is the last part of his bowling action. As he jumps up in the last part of his bowling action, he comes down very hard on his right leg because he uses that as a pivot to generate speed on the ball. That was an area we focused a lot on. That is why you start with the core, the hip area."

Apart from putting the players through a strenuous outdoor training regime, which started at six in the morning on weekdays and focused more on movements and running technique, Exeter asked Zaheer to make waves with heavy ropes - the toughest exercise - in the gym. He also had him lift dead weights while squatting on the ground, and perform vertical jumps. The physical changes started to become visible after about a month. By then Zaheer had lost 5kg, and was more flexible in his movements.

"It [the weight loss] just allows him to do better, and more often, and become consistent," Exeter says. "We worked on flexibility through his hip region, mobility of his hips, which would transfer positively into his bowling and would take a load off his lower back as well. So getting him stronger through the central part of his body would not only protect his back but also allow him to produce more powerful rotations."

When Zaheer checked in, he had failed in the deadlift from the floor. "But by the end he had started to lift some reasonable weight - around 115kg - which he could not do at the start because he had not got the strength in the core and back," Exeter says. "In that lift he is not only working his legs, he is working his glute, his hamstrings, his upper body, his core, his back, his forearms."

****

Ajit Agarkar, Zaheer's former team-mate and a good friend, could not believe the physical change. He had met Zaheer in London before he left for France. "He looked determined," Agarkar remembers. "He told me he was going to push himself to achieve the required fitness." Injuries and constant niggles pushed Agarkar into retirement this October, so he understood what Zaheer was going through. "It is about bowling with that extra weight for 20-25 overs every day," he says. "And that takes its toll."


Zaheer Khan in his delivery stride, Punjab v Mumbai, Ranji Trophy, Group A, 1st day, Chandigarh, November 7, 2013
Tim Exeter worked on Zaheer Khan's bowling action to help him reduce pressure on his body © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Enlarge

When Zaheer returned from France, Agarkar was amazed at the striking difference. "We could not believe how lean he had become," he says.

According to Sudhir Naik, Zaheer's long-time coach, his biggest challenge before he trained with Exeter was to last a whole Test. "It was mental, where he would worry how long he could last," Naik says. "He was always confident as a bowler. He was only worried about fitness. But so far, in the last two months, he has just built on the momentum. Especially in the three Ranji Trophy matches he has played, he has bowled extremely well, with full speed, including long eight-to-nine-over spells at a stretch."

Even though the selectors had ignored him for the home series against West Indies earlier this month, Zaheer's aim was to get match-fit. Along the way he bowled influential spells that helped Mumbai snatch crucial points. Sulakshan Kulkarni, Mumbai's coach, agrees with Naik. "In the five-odd matches he has played recently, he has bowled nearly 200 overs [147.3 in five matches] and not once did he come back to the dressing room [for a comfort break or treatment]," Kulkarni says. "You never needed to bother about his bowling. But now he looks the fittest cricketer in the team. So mentally, skill-wise, he was on top."

How can we be sure that Zaheer, who has had an injury-prone body, will last the distance, enough to take him over the last bend of his career? Training smart and focusing on the pre-season training are the key areas, Exeter says. "He told me he has played for 13 years solid. When you are younger, you can get away with murder, but as you get older it is wise to step back and have a preparation period through pre-season training. When you hit a certain age, you only need one injury, and then it just starts a chain of events, but you can definitely get it back when you are more robust. No question about that."

When Zaheer and Yuvraj arrived at Exeter's centre in the middle of a vibrant European summer, they had excess baggage. "They arrived with four to five jackets, thinking it was going to be cold," Exeter chuckles. While the summer took care of that, Exeter is satisfied he has played a part in getting rid of the excess body weight.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by   on (November 30, 2013, 10:01 GMT)

There was a time, just before the horror test series in England in 2011, when Zak was the most complete bowler in world cricket. Not the fastest but quick enough, he could land the ball on a one rupee coin anywhere on the pitch, seam upright, swing the new ball and reverse swing the old one, and make it sing with menace like an Akram or a Younis. Then, on a cool afternoon on the first day at Lords, after taking two wickets in two blistering spells earlier in the morning, Zak's complacency on the fitness front caught up with him when his hamstring blew. The great Khan limped off the field, carrying India's series hopes with him. He had let down legions of fans, but mostly he had let himself down. It is a shameful testament to the Indian cricket system that as late as two years ago you could play test cricket for India as a bowling spearhead and carry 10 kg of excess fat around your middle. So now here comes a chance at redemption. Graeme Smith's fears have come true, Zak is back!

Posted by TehsinKhan on (November 29, 2013, 13:50 GMT)

Good to see Zak back in Indian squad! he has the heart of a fast bowler whether he has the speed or not is a separate issue. Under crunch conditions he can take wickets for his captain and is also a handy man down the order when long handle is necessary. much love from the other side of Border!

Posted by android_user on (November 28, 2013, 2:27 GMT)

wont be of much use if zak doesnt perform. he has to take wickets.thats for sure.

Posted by Alexk400 on (November 27, 2013, 21:15 GMT)

If we can only make sehwag to go do fitness. :)

Posted by   on (November 27, 2013, 6:00 GMT)

You know what - all these articles which glorify the tales of fitness/comebacks etc will have no meaning unless Zaheer performs. Look at Yuvi - except for that one T20 game, he has looked out of depth. Yes Yuvi has looked trim and slim and fit, but the results on the field of play have been poor. Lets hope Zak gives a better account of himself

Posted by Naresh28 on (November 26, 2013, 13:15 GMT)

@boltthaa - well said. The recent A-trip to SA should have put some of them in a better frame of mind. It wont be easy. The best part is the batsman have scored tons of runs on Indian pitches - this should give them confidence. Dhawan is more like Shewag - goes for his shots and maybe he should reign in and get to know the conditions. Vijay is a patient player and I suppose that is why has been selected. It will start with these two guys. Our bowlers might enjoy better helpful conditions. SA will be out to protect their number 1 status.

Posted by CricketMaan on (November 26, 2013, 9:13 GMT)

Can we send Irfan Pathan, Varun Aaron to Exeter? I've heard Michael Holding say it 100 times, what bowlers need is running, running and running not some bloody gym work. The legend Kapil, Wasim were highly successful doing that in most part of thier career although in the later stages relied on thier experience than fitness.

Posted by icemankimi on (November 26, 2013, 8:50 GMT)

Good article from Nagaraj. Its heartening to see ZAK put such an effort and commitment towards his game. I wish him all the best in SA. He has always been a good bowler and a good mentor to young bowlers in the team. Hope he doesn't get complacent like Yuvi is right now. Yuvraj may be in good shape but his effort is not upto the mark at all in the field. Wish a good series in SA for ZAK...

Posted by NP_NY on (November 26, 2013, 8:48 GMT)

This is good news but didn't this happen a couple of times in his career before? Why do these Indian bowlers keep needing a kick in the back side, to get their act together again. He is 35. 'hope he realizes that if he loses it again, he won't get another chance.

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